Unsurprisingly a natural sympathy exists between the Abolition Movement and pro-life politics, both being concerned with gross violations of the most basic of human rights and the barbaric treatment meted out to our fellow humans. Much of the rhetoric employed by the pro-life lobby overtly draws parallels between the two movements. In this interview Andy Stephenson of Abort 67, describes how many women don’t like the analogy of the slave-trade with abortion, as they don’t like to be compared with slave-owners, but as Andy explains, it is not the individual woman who is being compared with the slave-masters, but the abortion industry as a whole, which seeks to overpower and exploit vulnerable human beings as commodities to be extinguished at will. Even Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of BPAS admits that a young embryo is a human life.
Not only is the analogy correct, but there are also similarities in terms of the tactics of the two lobbies. The abolition movement fetishised the black body in order to emphasise the common humanity between people of all nationalities in way that appears racist and bordering on the obscene to postmodern eyes.
White perceptions associated sexuality with the uncivilised woman, as William Blake’s engraving for John Stedman’s 1795 polemic demonstrates.
Whilst the engraving was meant to highlight the barbarity and look of pain as the woman was severely punished, it also did much to whet appetites and reinforce negative racial stereotypes back in Blighty.
Josiah Wedgewood’s evocative anti-slavery icon made a blazon out of the enchained black male form, which soon became de-rigeur on pendants or brooches of the upper and middle-classes, no self-respecting salon or gathering was complete without a symbol of awareness of what was the burning issue of the day.
The same fetishisation is apparent in the pro-life movement. We too are not averse to making a blazon of the human form.
A quick click on Abort67’s website will display painful and distressing images similar to Blake’s portrayals of man’s inhumanity to man. SPUC’s tiny feet badges, an essential addition to the lapels of all Catholic clergy and laity, are today’s equivalent of Wedgewood’s medallions.
This fetishisation is not necessarily a bad thing, but perhaps the lesson we can learn from the abolitionists is that of thoughtfulness. Whilst Wedgewood and Blake could not predict how future generations would interpret their portrayals, a note of caution needs to be struck. Visual reminders of the humanity of the unborn child are useful, but fetishisation is a form of objectification, we need to remember that though the portrayals of the unborn child in utero are always breathtakingly beautiful, the reason why is because this is human life in all its inspirational and awesome majesty. Christians will be reminded of the Incarnation, of how Christ humbled himself to become like us, this is the state that He once took, but we need to be wary of falling into the saccharine, ‘cute ickle baby’ trap, no matter how undeniably gorgeous the image. We don’t love each other or our children on looks alone, but because of who we are, because of that bond of common humanity, which we should nurture, respect and cherish regardless of whether one is a babbling newborn. And it is precisely this humanity, this solidarity that we have with all other human beings, that transcends barriers of age, social class, gender, race and creed that makes fetishisation so dangerous. The blastocyst is no less worthy of respect and yet it doesn’t easily lend itself to the pro-life cause, public imagination is not caught by the image of a cluster of mistreated and sometimes experimental cells, even though every single human being alive on this planet once had the identical physical form. We are not mere objects to be used in a utilitarian way, but people with our own unique destiny.
And of course, this is one of the difficulties of using images of aborted babies, although they can prove extremely useful. (This thoughtful non graphic article on the priests4life website that deals with graphic images is one of the best I’ve seen and closely reflects my own position). It takes wilful ignorance, sophistry and blindness to declare that the horrific photographs of the 24 week aborted baby was merely a lump of tissue. It’s also been extremely illuminating watching a friend attempt to pin down various hardcore Irish abortion activists who admit that even they are not happy with the concept of late-stage abortion, as to what stage they feel abortion would be acceptable. An answer has not yet been forthcoming.
Abort 67 are following in the footsteps of the abolitionists by trying to visually demonstrate the truth that is abortion. It’s a tactic that many have misgivings over, but the parallels are demonstrable.
This image was in no way scientifically accurate or precise in its depiction, but its shock value was seminal in terms of changing the hearts and minds of the public and highlighting the cramped conditions on board a slave transportation ship.
So why are today’s sharply precise medical images not having the same impact? One answer is de-sensitisation. We are bombarded with increasingly graphic images on a daily basis, perhaps we are becoming inured? If that were really the case, then the graphic images would not cause so much fury, although I do believe that due to advances in ultrasound technology, there is an increasing widespread awareness and acceptance of the humanity of the unborn. For all the talk about science, abortion remains an issue of ethics or rights for its defenders. Abortion is centred solely around a woman’s rights to choose, any thing else is obsfucation. Images of early-stage humanity cut no ice with those who are determined that the unborn must not get in the way of a woman’s chosen path. Which is why we see so much pent-up anger, rage and aggression, because so many of them know that their position is ethically, not to mention scientifically, dubious.
But I can’t help but wonder, given how entrenched abortion is, whether it’s time for a new tactic or slogan especially for those involved in ministry outside the abortion clinics? The medical and sometimes gruesome images should not always be avoided, (especially when lobbying politicians) but instead used with discretion. What are we in pro-life all about trying to achieve? A pro-life society that welcomes, accepts and embraces motherhood as being positive and a gift, for mother and child and society as a whole. I wonder whether or not it’s time for more carrot and less stick? Something that sends the right message, but is also overwhelmingly upbeat, bright and cheerful, showing precisely what is a stake, as well as presenting a positive and aspirational vision.
It certainly seems to have worked well in Ireland. Accusations of fetishisation can be levelled at any photo. But in this case we are envisaging the future, the potential, the joy instead of worshiping and making a blazon of a very specific bodily stage in all of our human journey.
Part 2 to follow
3 thoughts on “Abolition and abortion: Part 1 – fetishisation and blazons”
Great blog post. I would love to respond if you wouldn’t mind putting a link to it or including it within another post.
Go for it! It wasn’t meant as an attack as I hope you realise. I think the slavery parallels are fascinating.
I’ve believed for some time that while graphic images may have their place, that place is not outside an abortuary, confronting women who may already be in a distressed state. Pictures of babies developing in the womb and post-birth are beautiful and send a far stronger message, imo.